Reform Remains an Ill-Fated Word in China: but it cannot be ignored forever

On Wednesday, some of China’s most prominent scholars, activists and journalists published an open letter calling for the government to implement political and social reforms. In particular, the letter called for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This follows on from a similar letter written several months ago, in which pressure was applied on the government to adopt democratic reforms, including the creation of an independent judiciary.

It appears as though the world is taking an interminably long pause as it waits for China to change. Whilst economic growth has remained high over the past two decades, arguments against implementing political reforms have been easy to formulate. A strong, authoritarian state breeds rising living standards; end of discussion. At the same time, no mass movement calling for change has been witnessed since the fateful events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Since Tiananmen Square, there has been no mass movement for reform in China
Since Tiananmen Square, there has been no mass movement for reform in China

China’s government has always appeared anathema to reform, conservative in the strictest sense. Think of the years of economic failure endured under Mao Tse-Tung when the CCP hierarchy plowed stubbornly forward with their backward policies, masking disappointment with aggressive propaganda. Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up” of the economy in the 1980s was long overdue and testament to the typical conservatism at the highest level of government in Beijing.

As the Tiananmen Square protests showed, and countless other small-scale regional uprisings in recent years have reinforced, the CCP thinks little of popular pressure. Even reformist tendencies at the highest level tend to be ignored unless supported by a majority. Such are the trappings of a non-democratic system. Having said that, the CCP would do well to learn from the past and realise that persistent opposition to change can lead to disaster.

In 1898, the Guangxu Emperor, ruler of the Qing Dynasty, attempted to implement a series of political, economic and cultural reforms to modernise the archaic imperial state. After 104 days, Guangxu and his few supporters in government were sidelined by a coup d’etat led by his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi. At a time when reform was essential to preserve the imperial dynasty into the twentieth century, the conservatism of those in power, including the military, effectively set the seal on the Qing’s decline.

Empress Cixi retained a belief in the traditions of the Qing, something shared by China's military
Empress Cixi retained a belief in the traditions of the Qing, something shared by China’s military

By the time the last emperor, Puyi, ascended the imperial throne in 1908, the Qing Dynasty was dead. Preserving outdated policies and a belief system of absolutism eradicated from Europe centuries before, the Qing were out of touch and Puyi was effectively held a prisoner in the Forbidden City, as a succession of warlords fought for control of China.

Even after a “century of shame”, in which the imperial powers of Europe had humiliated China through opium wars and unfair trade negotiations, and shortly after the country’s humiliating defeat to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War, reform had been avoided. The subsequent collapse of the Qing had become inevitable.

Similar parallels can also be drawn with the “Gang of Four”, the brains behind the Cultural Revolution, which sought to preserve the Maoist dictatorship at the expense of government reform, and whose ultimate demise was inevitable after Mao’s death and Deng’s rise.

The CCP is by no means in a similar decline to the Qing, or as isolated as the “Gang of Four”, and whilst economic growth remains steady its leadership should not face a severe challenge to its rule. Nevertheless, for the Chinese population to continue to tolerate one-party rule – in an era when many of its youth are being educated in the West and have access to social networking sites that provide more than the state-sanctioned news – the CCP will need to change.

The very fact that yesterday’s letter was published openly is a sign that the government’s thought police are slipping. Such publications would have been unthinkable in recent years. Continuing to promise reform and then hoping to hide behind economic growth is not a sustainable platform for future government. A time will come when popular sentiment for reform begins to gain momentum. Either that, or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – so important to China’s stability – could force the government’s hand as a preemptive measure against a popular uprising. The CCP has the opportunity to implement reform voluntarily, on its terms, and forgo the possibility of forced action in the future.

But as has typified China’s long history, its leaders often wait just that bit too long.

The PLA may ultimately hold the balance of power between government and the reform movement
The PLA may ultimately hold the balance of power between government and the reform movement

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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